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The gang was centered in the state of Missouri. Membership fluctuated from robbery to robbery, as the outlaws' raids were usually separated by many months. At various times, it included the Younger brothers (Cole, Jim, John, and Bob), the James brothers (the notorious Jesse James and his brother Frank), Clell Miller, Arthur McCoy, Charlie Pitts, John Jarrette (who was married to Cole's sister Josie), Bill Chadwell (alias Bill Stiles), and Matthew "Ace" Nelson. Contrary to frequent reports, the James brothers and Younger brothers were not related, at least not by blood. Starting in 1879, after the demise of the James–Younger Gang, the James brothers committed further crimes with Clell Miller's brother Ed and the Ford brothers.
The James–Younger Gang had its origins in a group of Confederate bushwhackers who fought in the bitter partisan conflict that wracked the divided state of Missouri during the American Civil War. This group's postwar crimes began in 1866, though it did not truly become the "James–Younger Gang" until 1868 at the earliest, when the authorities first named Cole Younger and both the James brothers as suspects in the robbery of the Nimrod Long bank in Russellville, Kentucky. It dissolved in 1876, after the capture of the Younger brothers in Minnesota after the ill-fated attempt to rob the Northfield First National Bank. Three years later, Jesse James organized a new gang and renewed his criminal career, which came to an end with his death by getting shot in the back while hanging a picture in 1882. During the gang's period of activity, it robbed banks, trains, and stagecoaches in Missouri, Kentucky, Iowa, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, and West Virginia.
From the beginning of the American Civil War, the state of Missouri officially stayed with the Union. Missouri, however, had been the center of much of the agitation leading up to the outbreak of the war, and was home to dedicated partisans of both sides. Well before the end of 1861, local Unionists and secessionists began to battle each other across the state, and guerrilla warfare erupted between Confederate partisans and the more organized Union forces. By early 1862, the Unionist provisional government mobilized a state militia to fight increasingly organized and deadly Confederate partisans. This conflict (fought largely, though not exclusively, between Missourians themselves) raged until after the fall of Richmond and the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, costing thousands of lives and devastating broad swathes of the countryside.
The conflict with Confederate bushwhackers everywhere rapidly escalated into a succession of atrocities committed by both sides. Union troops often executed or tortured suspects without trial and burned the homes of suspected guerrillas and those suspected of aiding or harboring them. Where credentials were suspect, the accused bushwhacker was often executed, as in the case of Lt. Col. Frisby McCullough after the Battle of Kirksville. Bushwhackers frequently went house to house, executing Unionist farmers.
The James and Younger brothers belonged to slave-owning families with ties to the South. Zerelda Samuel, the mother of Frank and Jesse James, was an outspoken partisan of the South, though the Youngers' father, Henry Washington Younger, was believed to be a Unionist. Cole Younger's initial decision to fight as a "bushwhacker," or Confederate, is usually attributed to the death of his father at the hands of Union forces. He and Frank James are both believed to have fought under one of the most famous bushwhacker leaders, William Clarke Quantrill, though Cole eventually joined the regular Confederate army. Jesse James began his guerrilla career in 1864, at the age of sixteen, fighting alongside Frank under the leadership of Archie Clement and "Bloody Bill" Anderson.
At war's end, Frank James surrendered in Kentucky; Jesse James attempted to surrender to Union militia but was shot through the lung outside of Lexington, Missouri; he was nursed back to health by his cousin, Zerelda Zee Mimms, whom he eventually married. Cole Younger returned from a mission to California. Quantrill and Anderson had both been killed. The James brothers, however, continued to associate with their old guerrilla comrades, who remained together under the leadership of Archie Clement. It was likely Clement who, amid the tumult of Reconstruction in Missouri, turned the guerrillas into outlaws.
On February 13, 1866, a group of gunmen carried out one of the earliest daylight, peacetime, armed bank robbery in U.S. history, when they held up the Clay County Savings Association. The outlaws stole some $60,000 in cash and bonds (equivalent to $966,000 in 2014) and killed a bystander on the street outside the bank. The state authorities suspected Archie Clement of leading the raid, and promptly issued a reward for his capture. In later years, the list of suspects grew to include Jesse and Frank James, Cole Younger, John Jarrette, Oliver Shepard, Bud and Donny Pence, Frank Greg, Bill and James Wilkerson, Joab Perry, Ben Cooper, Red Mankus, and Allen Parmer (who later married Susan James, Frank and Jesse's sister).
That crime began a string of robberies, many of which were linked to Clement's group of bushwhackers. The hold-up most clearly linked to the group was of Alexander Mitchell and Company in Lexington, Missouri, on October 30, 1866, which netted $2,011.50 (equivalent to $32,000 in 2014). Clement was also linked to violence and intimidation against officials of the Republican government that now ruled the state. On election day, Clement led his men into Lexington, where they drove Republican voters away from the polls, and secured a Republican defeat. A detachment of state militiamen was dispatched to the town. They convinced the bushwhackers to disperse, then attempted to capture Clement, who still had a price on his head. Clement refused to surrender and was shot down in a wild gunfight on the streets of Lexington.
Despite the death of Clement, his old followers remained together, and robbed a bank across the Missouri River from Lexington in Richmond, Missouri, on May 22, 1867, in which the town mayor and two lawmen were killed. This was followed on March 20, 1868, by a raid on the Nimrod Long bank in Russellville, Kentucky. In the aftermath of the two raids, however, the more senior bushwhackers were killed or captured. This set the stage for the emergence of the James and Younger brothers, and the transformation of the old Clement crew into the James–Younger Gang.
On December 7, 1869, Frank and Jesse James are believed to have robbed the Davies County Savings Association in Gallatin, Missouri. Jesse is suspected of having shot down the cashier, John W. Sheets, in the mistaken belief that he was Samuel P. Cox, the Union militia officer who had ambushed and killed "Bloody Bill" Anderson during the Civil War. Jesse gained fame by the notoriety of the crime, a dramatic escape through the midst of a posse a few days later by the James brothers, and letters he wrote to the press. He only grew more famous, and notorious, until his death more than a decade later.
On June 3, 1871, Frank and Jesse James, Cole Younger, and Clell Miller robbed the bank in Corydon, Iowa. The bank contacted the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in Chicago, the first involvement of the famous agency in the pursuit of the James–Younger Gang. Agency founder Allan Pinkerton dispatched his son, Robert Pinkerton, who joined a county sheriff in tracking the gang to a farm in Civil Bend, Missouri. A short gunfight ended indecisively, as the gang escaped. On June 24, 1871, Jesse James wrote a letter to the Kansas City Times, claiming Republicans were persecuting him for his Confederate loyalties by accusing him and Frank of carrying out the robberies. "But I don't care what the degraded Radical party thinks about me," he wrote, "I would just as soon they would think I was a robber as not."
On April 29, 1872, the gang robbed a bank in Columbia, Kentucky. One of the outlaws shot down the cashier, R.A.C. Martin, who refused to open the safe. On September 23, 1872, three men (identified by former bushwhacker Jim Chiles as Jesse James and Cole and John Younger) robbed a ticket booth of the Second Annual Kansas City Industrial Exposition, amid thousands of people. They took some $900 (equivalent to $14,000 in 2014), and accidentally shot a little girl in the ensuing struggle with the ticket seller. There is no proof this was done by the Younger or James brothers. Jesse wrote a letter denying his or the Youngers' involvement; Cole was furious over this, because neither he nor brother John had been linked to the crime before the letter. The crime was praised by Kansas City Times editor John Newman Edwards in a famous editorial entitled, "The Chivalry of Crime." He soon published an anonymous letter from one of the outlaws, believed to be Jesse James, that referred to the approaching presidential election. "Just let a party of men commit a bold robbery, and the cry is hang them. But [President Ulysses S.] Grant and his party can steal millions and it is all right," the outlaw wrote. "They rob the poor and rich, and we rob the rich and give to the poor."
On May 27, 1873, the James–Younger gang robbed the Ste. Genevieve Savings Association in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri. As they rode off they fired in the air and shouted, "Hurrah for Hildebrand!". Samuel S. Hildebrand was a famous Confederate bushwhacker from the area, who had recently been shot dead in Illinois.
On July 21, 1873, the gang carried out its first train robbery, derailing a locomotive of the Rock Island Railroad near Adair, Iowa. Engineer John Rafferty died in the crash. The outlaws took $2,337 (equivalent to $38,000 in 2014) from the express safe in the baggage car, having narrowly missed a transcontinental express shipment of a large amount of cash.
On November 23, 1873, John Newman Edwards published a lengthy glorification of the James brothers, Cole and John Younger, and Arthur McCoy, in a twenty-page special supplement to the St. Louis Dispatch, his new newspaper. Most of the supplement, entitled "A Terrible Quintet," was devoted to Jesse James, the gang's public face, and the article stressed the outlaws' Confederate loyalties.
In January 1874, the outlaws were suspected of holding up a stagecoach in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, and later another between Malvern and Hot Springs, Arkansas. At the latter, the gang returned a watch to a Confederate veteran, saying that Northern men had driven them to outlawry and they intended to make them pay for it. On January 31, 1874, the gang robbed a southbound train on the Iron Mountain Railway at Gads Hill, Missouri. For the first of only two times in all their train robberies, the outlaws robbed the passengers; in both instances, their usual target, the safe in the baggage car belonging to an express company, held an unusually small amount of money. On this occasion, the outlaws reportedly examined the hands of the passengers, to ensure that they did not rob any working men. Many newspapers reported this was done by the "Arthur McCoy" gang.
The Adams Express Company, which owned the safe robbed at Gads Hill, hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to capture the outlaws. On March 11, 1874, John W. Whicher, the agent sent to investigate the James brothers, was found shot to death alongside a rural road in Jackson County, Missouri. Two other agents, John Boyle and Louis J. Lull, accompanied by Deputy Sheriff Edwin B. Daniels, posed as cattle buyers as they tracked the Youngers. On March 17, 1874, the trio was stopped by John and Jim Younger on a rural stretch of road near Monegaw Springs, Missouri. Boyle escaped, Lull and Daniels were shot, and John Younger was killed by Lull. Daniels died on the spot, but Lull lived long enough to testify before a coroner's inquest before succumbing to his wounds a few days later.
The Pinkerton deaths added to the growing embarrassment suffered by Missouri's first postwar Democratic governor, Silas Woodson. He issued a $2,000 reward offer for the Iron Mountain robbers (the highest reward usually offered for criminals was $300) and persuaded the state legislature to provide $10,000 for a secret service fund to track down the famous outlaws. The first agent, J. W. Ragsdale, was hired on April 9, 1874. On August 30, 1874, three of the gang held up a stagecoach across the Missouri River from Lexington, Missouri, in view of hundreds of onlookers on the bluffs of the town. A passenger identified two of the robbers as Frank and Jesse James. The acting governor, Charles P. Johnson, dispatched an agent selected from the St. Louis police department.
The gang next robbed a train on the Kansas Pacific Railroad near Muncie, Kansas, on December 8, 1874. It was one of the outlaws' most successful robberies, gaining them $30,000 (equivalent to $483,000 in 2014). A new addition to the gang, William "Bud" McDaniel, was captured by a Kansas City police officer after the robbery, and later was shot during an escape attempt.
On the night of January 25, 1875, the Pinkertons surrounded the James farm in Kearney, Missouri. Frank and Jesse James had likely been there earlier, but had already left. The Pinkertons threw an iron incendiary device into the house, which exploded when it rolled into a blazing fireplace. The blast nearly severed the right arm of Zerelda Samuel, the James boys' mother (the arm had to be amputated at the elbow that night), and killed their 9-year-old half brother, Archie Samuel. On April 12, 1875, an unknown gunman shot dead Daniel Askew, a neighbor (and former Union militiaman) who had provided the Pinkertons with a base for their raid. Allan Pinkerton now abandoned the chase after the James–Younger Gang.
By September 1875, at least part of the gang had ventured east to Huntington, West Virginia, where they robbed a bank on September 7. Two new members participated: Tom McDaniels (brother of Bud) and Tom Webb (a Confederate veteran who had been at Lawrence with Frank and Cole). McDaniels was killed by a posse and Webb was caught. The other two robbers, Cole and Frank, escaped.
Also in 1875, the two James brothers moved to the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee, probably to save their mother from further raids by detectives. Once there, Jesse James began to write letters to the local press, asserting his place as a Confederate hero and a martyr to Radical Republican vindictiveness.
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On July 7, 1876, Frank and Jesse James, Cole, Jim, and Bob Younger, Charlie Pitts, Bill Chadwell, and Hobbs Kerry robbed the Missouri Pacific Railroad at the "Rocky Cut" near Otterville, Missouri. Kerry, a raw recruit, was arrested soon after and he readily identified his accomplices.
The Rocky Cut raid set the stage for the final act in the history of the James–Younger Gang: the famous Northfield, Minnesota raid on September 7, 1876. The target was the First National Bank of Northfield, located far outside of the gang's usual territory, which previously had included only the South and the Border States. The bank itself was not unusually rich. According to public reports, required of all national banks, it was a perfectly ordinary rural bank, though rumors persisted that General Adelbert Ames, son of the owner of the Ames Mill in Northfield and recently deposed Reconstruction governor of Mississippi, had deposited $50,000 in the Northfield bank. Shortly after the robbery, Bob Younger declared that they had selected it because of its connection to two Union generals and Radical Republican politicians: Benjamin Butler and Adelbert Ames, the son-in-law of the hated Butler. General Ames had just stepped down as governor of Mississippi, where he had been strongly identified with civil rights and voting rights for freedmen, and had recently moved to Northfield, where his father owned the mill on the Cannon River and a large amount of stock in the bank. One of the outlaws "had a spite" against Ames, Bob said. Cole Younger said much the same thing years later and recalled greeting "General Ames" on the street in Northfield just before the robbery.
Cole, Jim and Bob Younger, Frank and Jesse James, along with Charlie Pitts, Clell Miller, and Bill Chadwell took the train to St. Paul and Minneapolis in early September 1876. After a layover in St. Paul, they divided into two groups, one going to Mankato, the other to Red Wing, on either side of Northfield. They purchased expensive horses and scouted the terrain around the towns, agreeing to meet south of Northfield along the Cannon River near Dundas on the morning of September 7, 1876. The gang attempted to rob the bank in Northfield about 2 p.m. on September 7, 1876. Northfield residents had seen the gang members leave a local restaurant near the mill shortly after noon, and they testified in Faribault at the Younger brothers' trial that they smelled alcohol and that gang members were obviously under the influence when they greeted General Ames near the mill.
Leaving the restaurant where they had eaten fried eggs, residents later testified that the gang members smelled of whiskey. Three of the outlaws (Bob Younger, Frank James and Charlie Pitts) crossed the bridge by the Ames Mill and entered the bank; the other five (Jesse James, Bill Stiles, Clell Miller and Cole and Jim Younger) stood guard outside, two or three riding up and down Division Street shooting their guns to frighten people off the street. Local citizens soon realized a robbery was in progress and several took up arms from local hardware stores. Shooting from behind cover, they poured a deadly fire on the terrorist outlaws. During the gun battle, one civilian sharpshooter, named Henry Wheeler, who took position from a third floor window of the Dampier House Hotel across the street from the bank, killed Miller. Another civilian sharpshooter, named A.R. Manning, who took cover from the corner of the Sciver building down the street, killed Stiles. Other civilian sharpshooters wounded the Younger brothers (Bob suffered a shattered elbow, Jim was shot in the jaw). The only civilian fatality was Nicholas Gustafson, a recent Swedish immigrant who was unarmed, and who was killed by Cole Younger at the corner of Fifth Street and Division.
Thirteen Swedish families lived west of Northfield in the Millersburg area in 1876, including Peter Gustafson who was recently joined by his brother Nicolaus and nephew Ernst from Sweden. West of Millersburg that morning, Peter Youngquist and four Swedish neighbors harnessed his mules and headed for Northfield to sell farm produce. Riding with the Youngquist party was 30 year-old Nicolaus Gustafson. It was Thursday, September 7, 1876. The Swedes arrived in Northfield about 1:00 pm and set up their vegetable wagon along the Cannon River near 5th Street. About 2:00 pm, they heard gunshots. Nicolaus Gustafson ran to the intersection of Division and 5th a block away, where he was shot in the head as the bank was being robbed. Gustafson died four days later. Another Swede named John Olson was an eyewitness to the Gustafson shooting and later testified against Cole Younger.
Inside the bank, the assistant cashier Joseph Lee Heywood refused to open the safe and was murdered for resisting. The two other employees in the bank were teller Alonzo Bunker and assistant bookkeeper Frank Wilcox. Bunker escaped from the bank by running out the back door despite Pitts shooting him in his right shoulder as he ran. The three robbers then ran out of the bank after hearing the shooting outside and mounted their horses to make a run for it, having only taken several bags of nickels from the bank. The infamous bank robbery failed because of brave local citizens and because the gang members had been drinking. Every year in September Northfield hosts Defeat of Jesse James Days, a celebration of the town's victory over the deadly James–Younger Gang.
In addition to Miller and Stiles dead, every one of the rest of the gang was wounded, including Cole who was shot in his left hip, Frank James in his right leg, as well as Pitts, while Jesse James was the last one to be shot, getting a bullet in the thigh as the gang escaped. The six surviving outlaws rode out of town on the Dundas Road toward Millersburg where four of them had spent the night before.
After several days of dodging the pursuing Minnesotans, who had joined posses and picket lines by the hundreds, the gang had only reached the western outskirts of Mankato. They decided to split up (despite persistent stories to the contrary, Cole Younger told interviewers that they all agreed to the decision). The Youngers and Pitts remained on foot, moving west, until finally they were cornered in a swamp called Hanska Slough, just north and west of Madelia, Minnesota on September 21, two weeks after the Northfield raid. In the gunfight that followed, Pitts was killed and the Youngers wounded further. The Youngers surrendered, and pleaded guilty to murder in order to avoid execution. Frank James and his accomplice secured horses and fled west across southern Minnesota, turning south just inside the border of the Dakota Territory. In the teeth of hundreds of pursuers and a nationwide alarm, Frank and his accomplice escaped, but the infamous James–Younger Gang was no more.
On September 23, 1876, the Younger brothers were taken to the Rice County jail in Faribault. On November 16, a grand jury issued four indictments — two for the first-degree murders of Joseph Heywood and Nicholas Gustafson, one for bank robbery, and one for assault with deadly weapons on the wounded bank clerk. The three Younger brothers pled guilty on November 20, 1876 and were sentenced to life terms in the state penitentiary at Stillwater. Bob Younger died in prison on September 15, 1889 from tuberculosis. After much legal dispute, Cole and Jim Younger were paroled in 1901 on the condition they remain in Minnesota. Jim committed suicide on October 19, 1902 while on parole in St. Paul. Cole Younger received a pardon in 1903 on the condition that he leave Minnesota and never return. He returned to Missouri where he joined a “Wild West” theme show with Frank James and died there on March 21, 1916. Jesse James was shot and killed by one of his own gang members on April 3, 1882 and the brutally violent James–Younger Gang ceased to exist after the Northfield tragedy. Nicolaus Gustafson was buried in Northfield because the Millersburg Swedes had no cemetery in 1876. After his death, the Swedes determined to establish a church and burial ground. Peter Youngquist and Carl Hirdler donated an acre of land adjacent to their homes overlooking Circle Lake and in 1877 John Olson was hired to build the Christdala Church two miles west of Millersburg. Today the church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and historical markers in front of the church tell the story of Nicolaus Gustafson and the founding of Christdala.
Having successfully escaped, Frank James joined Jesse in Nashville, Tennessee, where they spent the next three years living peacefully. Frank in particular seems to have thrived in his new life, farming in the Whites Creek area. Jesse, however, does not appear to have adapted well to ordinary pursuits. Accordingly, he gathered up new recruits and returned to a life of crime. On October 8, 1879, Jesse led his new men in robbing the Chicago and Alton Railroad near Glendale, Missouri. Unfortunately for Jesse, one of the raw recruits, Tucker Basham, was captured by a posse. He told authorities of how he had been recruited by Bill Ryan.
On September 3, 1880, Jesse James and Bill Ryan robbed a stagecoach near Mammoth Cave, Kentucky. On October 5, 1880, they robbed the store of John Dovey in Mercer, Kentucky. On March 11, 1881, Jesse, Ryan, and his cousin Wood Hite robbed a federal paymaster at Muscle Shoals, Alabama, taking $5,240 (equivalent to $84,000 in 2014). Shortly afterward, a drunk and boastful Ryan was arrested in Whites Creek, near Nashville, and both Frank and Jesse James fled back to Missouri.
On July 15, 1881, Frank and Jesse James, Wood and Clarence Hite, and Dick Liddil robbed the Rock Island Railroad near Winston, Missouri for $900 (equivalent to $14,000 in 2014). Train Conductor William Westfall and a passenger John McCullough were killed by one of the outlaws. On September 7, 1881, Jesse James carried out his last train robbery, holding up the Chicago and Alton Railroad. For only the second time, the gang held up the passengers when the express safe proved to be nearly empty. With this new outbreak of train robberies, the new governor of Missouri, Thomas T. Crittenden, convinced the state's railroad and express executives to put up the money for a vast reward for the James brothers.
Creed Chapman and John Bugler were arrested for participating in the robbery on September 7, 1881. Though they were confirmed as having participated in the robbery by convicted members of the gang, neither was ever convicted.
In December 1881, Wood Hite was killed by Liddil in an argument over Martha Bolton, the sister of the Fords. Bob Ford, not yet a member of the gang, assisted Liddil in his gunfight. Ford and Liddil, with Bolton as an intermediary, made deals with Governor Crittenden. On February 11, 1882, James Timberlake arrested Wood Hite's brother Clarence, who made a confession but died of tuberculosis in prison. Ford, on the other hand, agreed to bring down Jesse James in return for the reward. On April 3, 1882, Ford fatally shot Jesse behind the ear. Bob and his brother Charley surrendered to the authorities, pleaded guilty, and were promptly pardoned by Crittenden.
Only two cases came to trial – one in Gallatin, Missouri for the July 15, 1881 robbery of the Rock Island Line train at Winston, Missouri in which a train crewman and a passenger were killed and other trial was in Huntsville, Alabama for the March 11, 1881 robbery of a United States Army Corps of Engineers payroll at Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Frank James was found not guilty by juries in both cases (July 1883 at Gallatin and April 1884 at Huntsville). Missouri kept jurisdiction over him with other charges but they never came to trial and they kept him from being extradited to Minnesota.
Bob Younger died in prison of tuberculosis at the age of 36 in 1889. Cole and Jim were both paroled in 1901 but Jim could not cope and shot himself to death the next year. He was 54. Cole lived until 1916, when he died at the age of 72. The Youngers remained loyal to the Jameses when they were in prison and never informed on them. They ended up being model prisoners and in one incident helped keep other prisoners from escaping during a fire at the prison. Cole Younger also founded the longest-running prison newspaper in the United States during his stay in Stillwater State Prison, Stillwater, Minnesota.
Frank James died in 1915 at age 72.
The James and Younger brothers are major characters in Wildwood Boys (William Morrow, 2000; New York), a biographical novel of "Bloody Bill" Anderson by James Carlos Blake.